“You Have to Let Your Obsessions Guide You”: An Exclusive Q&A with Tom Perrotta

Posted Mon, 11/04/2019 - 9:52am by  |  Category: , , ,

Tom Perrotta is the author of nine works of fiction, including Election and Little Children, both of which were made into Oscar-nominated films, and The Leftovers, which was adapted into a critically acclaimed, Peabody Award-winning HBO series.

His other books include Bad HaircutThe WishbonesJoe CollegeThe Abstinence TeacherNine Inches, and his newest, Mrs. Fletcher, which just debuted as a series on HBO this fall.

Perrotta will appear at Hugo House on November 14, 2019, to give a Word Works: Writers on Writing lecture called “Laughter Is Only the Beginning,” where he’ll discuss his secrets for balancing satire and comedy with psychological realism to create the hilarious and heartbreaking portraits of suburbia that inspired the New York Times to call him “an American Chekhov.” In anticipation of the event, Perrotta gave us some insight into what it’s like to adapt your own work for the screen, how to know who you are as a writer, and his early writing influences.

Two of your novels—The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher—have recently been adapted into HBO series. How, if at all, has working on these shows changed your understanding of the stories or the characters?

It’s a strange and revelatory process, going back into a novel you’ve written and adapting it for a new medium. The main lesson I’ve learned is that there are many possible ways to tell a story, and that the choices you make in a novel are infinitely revisable. The Leftovers was a very loose adaptation—my collaborator, Damon Lindelof, used the material more as a jumping-off point for new stories than as a sacred text, and he really opened up the book. It was uncomfortable for me at first, but ultimately exhilarating—I learned that the book was full of potential that I hadn’t fully understood. 

Mrs. Fletcher is a more faithful adaptation, but there are numerous tiny changes spread throughout the seven episodes. I was working with a lot of other writers, and their perspectives influenced the show, as did the passage of time. Ultimately, there’s no point in telling the same story twice. You need to make it new, in large and small ways.

In a 2009 interview with The Guardian, you said, “I never wanted to write for the guys I met in college; I wanted to write for the guys I grew up with who weren’t literary sophisticates.” How has this outlook shaped your approach to storytelling and what you look for in the scenarios or characters you write about?

That quote definitely reflects a feeling I had when starting out as a writer. I want my work to be accessible to a wide audience. I don’t want the style to seem forbidding or exclusionary, or make readers who weren’t English majors feel like they’re not welcome. At the same time, I want to tell sophisticated, complex, and literary stories. That’s why I was so inspired by Raymond Carver when I first encountered his work. The style was so simple on the surface, but those stories were deep. They were also often about working-class characters struggling to get by.

I write about more middle-class people than Carver did, but I  gravitate towards “ordinary” characters—teachers, wedding band musicians, stay-at-home moms and dads, people who work in the local Senior Center.  

You’ve published nine novels so far. What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about writing since you first started?

If you’re lucky enough to sustain a writing career over a quarter of a century, as I have, you’ll start to notice patterns in your work. For instance, I can’t stop writing about school, about the dynamic between students and teachers. I’ve found it to be incredibly rich territory, a kind of microcosm of culture itself—the way we try (and often fail) to articulate our values and pass them along to the next generation. Sometimes I worry that I’m repeating myself, but I’ve also learned that you can’t really fight your imagination—you have to let your obsessions guide you, and you can’t, by definition, control an obsession.

A New York Times review of Mrs. Fletcher describes the book as “the sweetest and most charming novel about pornography addiction and the harrowing issues of sexual consent that you will probably ever read.” How do you find the balance between humor and current social issues?

I’m not sure that was a compliment from the Times reviewer—sweetness and charm are often considered somewhat suspect in literary circles, especially when applied to “harrowing issues.” While I deal with serious and sometimes dark subjects, I guess I’m ultimately a comic writer. I think people can change, and I’m interested in watching them struggle against their limitations, and move towards greater self-awareness. I’m not a satirist looking on from above, pointing out their flaws and mocking them.

While you’re in town for the Word Works event, you’ll also be teaching a class on point of view in fiction, discussing how the writer’s choice of POV affects the way they understand their characters. What would you say is the most important thing for writers to understand about using first- versus third-person perspective?

POV is everything, I think. Fiction is about imagining what the world looks and feels like for a particular character. If you can’t get out of your head and into someone else’s, you shouldn’t be writing fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first-person or third-person to do this. The goal is to convincingly inhabit the perspective of your character, period.

Learn more from Tom by signing up for his one-session class, Outside In: Two Ways of Thinking about Character, or attending his upcoming Word Works lecture on Thursday, November 14.